“What is that?” the boy sneers at the foreign-looking food during lunchtime.
Among American-born children of immigrants, there’s a common story about bringing a non-American lunch to school. The child at first would be proud of the food, but over time, as they realize that other kids, especially the popular ones, don’t approve, they may go home and beg for a replacement. The Lunchables, please! The PB&J sandwiches. Anything except the stinky tofu. Anything except the fish with its eyeballs and scaly skin. Anything but…
Tonight at my regular book club, the conversations had drifted into that territory. The majority of us were American-born children of immigrants. Stories of sneering boys. Stories of how a friend stood up for someone else. Laughter ensued. Despite being the American-born child of my Hong Kong raised parents and bringing regular Chinese food to school, my lips were thin. Yes, I did remember eating fried rice or other strange foods. And yet I hated sandwiches, because they often surfaced memories of gagging on the soggy dough. Instead, as I heard stories of being ostracized for having foreign food, all I felt was this overwhelming feeling of loneliness.
Because I remember sitting alone during lunchtime, because I lacked friends.
Yes, eventually, there were people that I surrounded myself with, but they weren’t friends at all, but rather people that proved that I wasn’t a loner, the outsider, the outcast. They were proof that I fit in, even thought I didn’t really fit in.
And because of that, nobody saw my lunch. Because nobody was there to see. Sometimes I must have just eaten quickly so that nobody would see that I was eating alone. Just enough to satisfy my hunger. Then I would watch all the other kids.
How did they fit in? How did they figure out how to eat lunch? How did they get so popular? How did they make friends?
All of these thoughts, those anxious moments tumbled through my mind as I watched my friends talk about their struggles. During a pause, I blurted, “I ate alone, so nobody ever saw what I ate.”
One person who had just joined the book club turned and said, “Oh I did too. Well I had one friend.”
To which I mumbled as everyone turned back to their laughter, letting the loneliness yank me to a place of sorrow, which sedated me for the rest of the hour, “I didn’t have any.”